We have hitherto been concerned with investigating the manner in which our dreams represent the relations between the dream- thoughts, but we have often extended our inquiry to the further question as to what alterations the dream-material itself undergoes for the purposes of dream-formation. We now know that the dream-material, after being stripped of a great many of its relations, is subjected to compression, while at the same time displacements of the intensity of its elements enforce a psychic transvaluation of this material. The displacements which we have considered were shown to be substitutions of one particular idea for another, in some way related to the original by its associations, and the displacements were made to facilitate the condensation, inasmuch as in this manner, instead of two elements, a common mean between them found its way into the dream. So far, no mention has been made of any other kind of displacement. But we learn from the analyses that displacement of another kind does occur, and that it manifests itself in an exchange of the verbal expression for the thought in question. In both cases we are dealing with a displacement along a chain of associations, but the same process takes place in different psychic spheres, and the result of this displacement in the one case is that one element is replaced by another, while in the other case an element exchanges its verbal shape for another… Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Chapter 6, Part 2D. The Regard for Representability
We may see Christianity as the egotistical transvaluation of ancient Greco-Roman mythology into Jewish monotheism. We may analyze the New Testament and other early Christian text as the artistic form of the “dream-work” (to use Freud’s term) that accomplishes or seeks to accomplish this task. The transformation of the Hermes’ birth narrative into the Jesus birth narrative is a good example of this process.
If a narrative has a number of parallel elements with an earlier narrative, it may indicate that the earlier narrative is a source for the later narrative. If these elements are too unique or unusual to be coincidental, we are justified in seeing a source-copy relationship. There are a number of elements in the Jesus birth narrative that match elements in the Hermes birth narrative. These elements may be unique and unusual enough to insure that a source-copy relationship exists. The main unique elements are 1) Extreme similarity of mothers’ names, 2) Impregnation by highest deity, 3) Birth in a cave, 4) Association with cattle feeding, 5) Crib Transformation, 6) Repeated mention of swaddling clothes, 7) an Omen backs up a pronouncement, 8) Distinguished visitors bring gifts, 9) Sacrifice of exactly two living creatures. 10) Shepherds and Gods.
While each of these similarities can be deemed coincidental, the appearance of them all in the short birth narrative of Jesus suggests a deliberate pattern of development. We can examine each of these elements individually.
1) The mother of Hermes is named Maia. Jesus’ mother is named Maria. In Greek, Μαῖα, looks very much like Μαρια. It is possible that the coincidental similarity in the two names suggested to the early Christian writers that the Hermes material was appropriate for describing the birth of the sons of both Maia and Maria.
2) Zeus, the chief God of the Greeks impregnates Maia and she gives birth to a son, The Hebrew God (or Most high God) impregnates Mary and she gives birth to a son.
3) Maia and Mary give birth in a cave. (from Pseudo-Apollorus, Bibliotheca 3.112, “The oldest daughter Maia, after her intercourse with Zeus, bore Hermes in a cave on Kyllene (Cyllene).” (from Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 78,) “But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ.” It was generally recognized by Christians in the first five centuries, including church fathers like Justin Martyr, Origen, and Jerome, and the Emperor Constantine and his devout mother, Helena, that Jesus was born in a cave.
5) Crib transformation. In both tales, the crib of the new-born God is changed from an object with a different purpose. Note this from Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 112 :
“The oldest daughter Maia, after her intercourse with Zeus, bore Hermes in a cave on Kyllene (Cyllene). Though he was laid out in swaddling-clothes with her winnowing basket for a cradle,” A “winnowing basket” separated grain from chaff. Wikipedia notes:
The winnowing-fan (λίκνον [líknon], also meaning a “cradle”) featured in the rites accorded Dionysus and in the Eleusinian Mysteries: “it was a simple agricultural implement taken over and mysticised by the religion of Dionysus,” Jane Ellen Harrison remarked.Dionysus Liknites (“Dionysus of the winnowing fan”) was wakened by the Dionysian women, in this instance called Thyiades, in a cave on Parnassus high above Delphi; the winnowing-fan links the god connected with the mystery religions to the agricultural cycle, but mortal Greek babies too were laid in a winnowing-fan
The writers of the Jesus birth story seem to have combined the two ideas in the original Hermes birth story of cattle feeding and the idea of creative cradle-making and come up with the idea of Mary making a manger into a cradle. Freud talks about this kind of combining two ideas into one in his “Interpretation of Dreams” and calls it “condensation.” It is also frequently found in the arts: films, novels, paintings, and poems.
6) Both birth narratives emphasize that the new born baby gets wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” From Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 26 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.):
“[Ostensibly a description of an ancient Greek painting at Neapolis (Naples):] Birth of Hermes. The mere babe still in swaddling clothes, the one who is driving the cattle into the cleft of the earth, who furthermore is stealing Apollon’s weapons–this is Hermes. Very delightful are the thefts of the god; for the story is that Hermes, when Maia bore him, loved thievery and was skilled in it, though it was by no means through poverty that the god did such things, but out of pure delight and in a spirit of fun. If you wish to follow his course step by step, see how the painting depicts it. He is born on the crest of Olympos, at the very top, the abode of the gods. There, as Homer says, one feels no rain and hears no wind, nor is it ever beaten by snow, it is so high; but it is absolutely divine and free from the ills that pertain to the mountains which belong to men. There the Horai (Seasons) care for Hermes at his birth. The painter has depicted these also, each according to her time, and they wrap him in swaddling clothes, sprinkling over him the most beautiful flowers, that he may have swaddling clothes not without distinction. While they turn to [Maia] the mother of Hermes lying on her couch of travail, he slips out of his swaddling clothes and begins to walk at once and descends from Olympos. The mountain rejoices in him–for its smile is like that of a man–and you are to assume that Olympos rejoices because Hermes was born there.
Now what of the theft? Cattle grazing on the foothills of Olympos, yonder cattle with golden horns and whiter than snow–for they are sacred to Apollon–he leads over a winding course into a cleft of the earth, not that they may perish, but that they may disappear for one day, until their loss vexes Apollon; and then he, as though he had had no part in the affair, slips back into his swaddling clothes.
Compare to Luke 2.7-12:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
7) In both stories a sign or omen backs up a pronouncement. Apollo, while looking for his cattle approaches an old man walking a beast (a shepherd?). He asks him if he saw who stole his cattle. The man tells him a child stole his cattle. Apollo sees a long-winged bird that proves the truth of the report of the old man. In Luke, a God messenger (angel) approaches shepherds at night to tell them who shall save them. The report by the angel of a savior born is proved by the shepherds seeing a child in swaddling clothes in a manger. Thus, in Hermes:
Now Eos Erigeneia (the Dawn) was rising from deep-flowing Okeanos, bringing light to men, when Apollon, as he went, came to Onkhestos, the lovely grove and sacred place of the loud-roaring Holder of the Earth [Poseidon]. There he found an old man grazing his beast along the pathway from his court-yard fence,..
Then the old man answered him and said: ‘My son, it is hard to tell all that one’s eyes see; for many wayfarers pass to and fro this way, some bent on much evil, and some on good: it is difficult to know each one. However, I was digging about my plot of vineyard all day long until the sun went down, and I thought, good sir, but I do not know for certain, that I marked a child, whoever the child was, that followed long-horned cattle–an infant who had a staff and kept walking from side to side: he was driving them backwards way, with their heads toward him.’
So said the old man. And when Apollon heard this report, he went yet more quickly on his way, and presently, seeing a long-winged bird, he knew at once by that omen that thief was the child of Zeus Kronion.
While in Luke:
12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
Signs and omens are pretty common to both Greek and Hebrew mythology. It is however interesting that in the Hermes story, a winged creature (long-winged bird) is the sign that identifies the new born child as the principle character, while in the Jesus story, the winged creature (angel) identifies the new born child as the sign of the principle character.
8) Distinguished visitors give gifts to the child. The Horai (Seasons) give flowers to Hermes. Magi bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 26 (trans. Fairbanks), “There the Horai (Seasons) care for Hermes at his birth. The painter has depicted these also, each according to her time, and they wrap him in swaddling clothes, sprinkling over him the most beautiful flowers, that he may have swaddling clothes not without distinction.” In the Jesus birth story, it is the Magi who brings gifts.
9) Both tales talk about the sacrifice of precisely two living creatures. In Hermes two cows, in Luke, two turtle doves. Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 112 – 115 (trans. Aldrich), “…he hid them in a grotto, except for two which he sacrificed.” In Luke, “22And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; 23(As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) 24And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
10) Shepherds and Gods. In the Homeric Hymn, Hermes is called a Shepherd, “So Hermes the shepherd (oiopolos) and Leto’s glorious son kept stubbornly disputing each article of their quarrel…” He was known as the God of Shepherds, as was Apollo and Hermes’ son, Pan. In the Jesus Myth, the birth of Jesus is first announced to Shepherds who seek him out. It makes sense that the birth of the Shepherd God, Hermes, would first be announced to Shepherds. King David was also a shepherd. We may see that having the Shepherds seek out Jesus is a way of condensing the ideas of Jesus being a God/son of Zeus like Hermes and a Jewish King like David. It would appeal to both Jews and Greco-Romans.
These parallels, I believe, are strong enough to suggest a source-copy parallel between the two birth narratives. Naturally one has to assume that the Jesus narratives went through many changes for many reasons, bringing it further and further away from its source in Greek Mythology describing the birth of Hermes.
(Note: All Hermes birth narrative quotes are from the website http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/HermesMyths.html)